I remember vividly my first day in English class as an undergraduate student, so many decades ago.  The professor was lecturing about Samuel Beckett, and remarked that Beckett was “an enigma.”  With that comment, I felt a little faint:  here I was, an upstart 17 year-old already in her second year of university (courtesy of advanced credits from having attended CEGEP in Quebec), and I had no idea what “enigma” meant.  I immediately scribbled the word down at the top of my notepage, and as soon as class was over, dashed home to look it up.  Thus started my lifelong practise of vocabulary-expanding via writing things down.  Needless to say, as soon as this new word was on my linguistic radar, I began to see it everywhere.

The same pattern persisted with basically all the new words I learned along the way (okay, maybe not with “hermeneutic”), but the one that stuck in my mind and won a singular place in my heart was oxymoron.  You know, the kind of paradox that contains the opposite of itself, yet is essentially true: to wit, George Carlin’s famous “jumbo shrimp” or the now-ancient (and no longer true, anyway) “Canadian literature.”  So when I say that I myself am an oxymoronic kind of eater, I say it with a modicum of affection.  But with a heavy stress on “moronic.”

Tofu and Twinkies, Collards and Caramels, Chard and Chocolate, Brewer’s Yeast and Brownies–take any of these diametrically opposed pairs of foodstuffs, and I love each individual part–and love them equally.  I can munch on millet with sauteed garlic, onion, tamari and walnuts, then an hour later, go out and chomp on some chocolate-covered raisins.  I can eat a delicious meal of raw kale salad with avocado, baked sweet potato wedges with sesame seeds and Thai Peanut Dipping Sauce (I must post that recipe–fab!), then later in the afternoon, suck back some Betty Crocker Cream Cheese “Flavor” Frosting, straight from the can.  And, just as with my Girls, I recognize that each one is totally different from the other, yet can adore each with the same degree of passion.    

I got to thinking about this paradox today after spending a lovely morning at the Whole Life Expo with my friend Michelle.  I’d previously enjoyed a great week of eating totally healthfully (yes, I’ve been indulging in my Mock-Chocolate Pudding, but hey, it’s tofu and agave nectar!) and looked forward to seeing a plethora of new health-foodie products at the show. 

 After a long drive downtown during which our chatter became so animated that I, the driver, nearly hit a streetcar at one point, we began our tour of the place.  Aisles and aisles of alternative-health products to gaze upon and sample.  It was like Disneyland for hippies!  As it turned out, we started our tour in the food section, and viewed some amazing products.  All with abundant free samples.  All delicious.  All good for me. Until the chocolate.

gojiplain.jpgFirst up was goji berries, the latest berry to join the antioxidant roster. If you haven’t tasted gojis yet, I’d highly recommend it.  Higher in Vitamin C than oranges, higher in Beta Carotene than carrots, higher in protein than whole wheat, and higher in most other vitamins, minerals, and essential nutrients than pretty much any other berry, these little crimson gems are both tart and sweet, with a whif of bitterness as a nearly undetectable afterthought. One of my favorite alternative health gurus, Dr. Ben Kim, describes them as a cross between “sweet cherries and plums.” I’m a regular consumer of them, and so was highly intrigued by their latest incarnation, enrobed in pomegranate-flavored yogurt coating.  Yum!  After a couple of samples, I found myself dishing out $10 for one small bag.  

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[The yogurt-covered variety]

We also saw (and sampled) a wide range of shakes, smoothies, greens powders, supplements, juicers, oils, all-natural soaps, and more before happening upon the Xocai healthy chocolate booth.  Now, I’m not even a fan of dark chocolate, but these nuggets contain both blueberries and acai berries for the ultimate in antioxidant benefits.  The perfect combination of decadence and desirability at the same time.  Of course, we just had to sample it.  Both flavors.  More than once.

What happened then was something that’s occurred probably thousands of times in my life: one bite of chocolate and all my previous willpower just dissolved–poof!–like that. Suddenly, I was overcome by the urge to eat every piece of chocolate, and anything else, in sight. (Unfortunately, that also included a spoonful of concentrated maca liquid, very nearly causing that chocolate to re-visit me on its way back up.) 

Shortly thereafter, we came upon yet another chocolate-touting booth and I bought not one, but two 100-gram bars.  Quite enjoyed the cappuccino one on the way home (though I did save some for C.).  Now, I feel quite confident that Michelle did not go home and do the same, considering her stable, and very slim, physique. 

By the time I arrived home, I’d eaten the other bar, too.  Reflecting on this behavior, I had somewhat of a revelation regarding my bingeing habit.  Seems I run on something very much like a binary code: my compulsion for sweets is either “on” or “off,” but there’s no in between.  (Ergo, I seem incapable of moderation in that area).  Eating that one initial piece of chocolate flicked the toggle switch to the “on” position, and I was off and running (toward chocolate). So I’m beginning to see that one of my strategies must be to simply not go therein the first place–no initial taste, so no overweening desire to eat the entire bar, cake, package, can, bag, jar, or whatever.

By dinnertime, I’d reverted to eating from the healthy side of the spectrum, a la Stacy Halprin’s advice (ie, just soldier on as if it never happened).  So I whipped up some of my very favorite vegan Mac and “Cheese” (or “Cheeze,” as the original recipe calls it) from the Fat Free Vegan’s blog (I used rice pasta, though).  Filled with the aforementioned brewer’s yeast and its cheesy goodness, miso, tahini, and a whack of delish herbs and spices, this is true comfort food that’s also incredibly nutrient-dense and good for you.  Given that I had only rice milk (albeit unflavored) in the house, I was afraid it would ruin the flavor, but it turned out just as delicious as usual. 

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[Elsie polishing off the sauce, enjoying her share of B12 for the day]

And now, at least, I can feel as if I’ve eaten something that will nourish my body and help me recover from the chocolate overload today.  Not quite as bad as Tofu with Twinkies, but chocolate (and chocolate, and chocolate) with vegan mac and cheeze–still pretty contradictory.

This evening, remembering something Michelle said as we drove home (no near-fender bender that time), sparked another mini-epiphany for me.  Apparently, she used to be one of those “Type A” personalities, always rushing to fill her time as much as possible, to accomplish seventy tasks a day, running from one pre-planned event to another.  Now, having met her in her current incarnation, I can only say that imagining her behaving in that manner seems virtually impossible.

Once she started yoga, she said, she’d effortlessly lost five pounds and found that she had a new perspective, one which allowed her to relax, take things as they come, and enjoy the moments in her life.  It was a deliberate choice, she said, but now she makes a point of not letting the “little things” get to her, and trying to slow down and enjoy each day. 

I felt a little bit of squishy nostalgia for my own year at nutrition school (oh so far away, now), when I was able to focus on health in all its myriad aspects–physical, mental, emotional, spiritual.  During that time, I ate really, really well, and spent time preparing and appreciating the fantastic food I was learning about and cooking with; I took time to appreciate my dog and my honey (oops, yes, I think it was in that order, actually), enjoyed relaxing and meditating and reading and listening to music; enjoyed breathing in the sharp air in the autumn mornings, meandering walks along the trail with The Girls, an occasional glass of red with my honey over dinner–heck, I even enjoyed the plush feel of the carpet under me each morning as I struggled through my sit-ups. 

During that year, I enjoyed all the daily pleasures and even some of the more mundane tasks–all the things that were a regular part of my existence.  It really does make a difference, I realized, if you take even a few minutes to exhale away the stress and anxiety that can so easily accumulate. 

Thinking about it, I realized a paradox extends to the rest of my life, as well, not just my eating habits.  I have the credentials of a holistic practitioner (nutritionist), yet am regularly afflicted by the same pressures and unhealthy habits of so many other middle class, overworked white-collar workers.  I resolved, immediately, to meditate tonight. 

But I’d just better make it quick, because I only have ten minutes to de-stress before I have to get back to work. 

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Sinuses and Stress

November 9, 2007

When I woke up this morning, the unmistakeable signs were there:  slight throbbing pain behind the forehead, soreness in the eyes whenever I look this way or that, and a sinking feeling that the little diet-conscious man inside my head was finally annoyed enough that, in retribution, he decided to stand behind the bridge of my nose and push with all his might against the wall that is my face:  “Let me out!  LET ME OUT!”.  Ah, the joys of the sinus headache.

Oh, I know what this is:  it’s my payback for those last few days of secret forays to the drugstore or bulk store to buy my surreptitious Halloween candies.  It’s what I get for eating cookies for lunch, even if I do skip dinner.  It’s my early warning signal for ignoring my five-to-ten-a-day.  

After a few days of eating poorly and disregarding my body’s subtle signs (a little more fatigued getting up in the morning; a little more bloated after eating; a slight stomach ache upon rising. . . . ), this ole house of my soul finally reacts BIG TIME:  debilitating sinus headaches, chest pains that feel like a knockout punch, jagged stabbing pains in the stomach–oh, there’s a whole repertoire.  And each time, I tell myself, how could I be so stupid?  And, I will never, never do this again.  But of course, there’s chocolate in the world, so I do this again.

If I catch this now–right away–I can avert a full blown sinus infection (and that, truly, I want never to do again).  With homeopathy, sinus irrigation, and a clean diet including extra vitamin C and greens, I should be fine within the next two days.

It makes perfect sense, of course, that this would befall me just at this very moment in time:  I’m moving in THREE DAYS, for goodness’ sakes, and I am stressed out to the max.  And, as Holmes and Rahe told us back in the 60’s: good stress, bad stress–doesn’t really matter to your cells and heart and neurons–it’s all going to take a toll.  Just for fun, now, why don’t we see where I currently fall?  C’mon with me, and let’s review what’s happened in the past year, according to the Stress Scale:

  • Personal injury or illness: 53
  • Sexual Difficulties (I’m assuming not having it counts here): 39
  • Business readjustment (have I mentioned I had to close down a business?): 39
  • Change in Financial State (no income for 2 years–see above): 38
  • Change in responsibilities at work (back to old job; lots to do): 29
  • Outstanding personal achievement (on television-yay!  But still stress): 28
  • Revision of personal habits (more than once, I’m afraid): 24
  • Change in working hours or conditions (see above re: work): 20
  • Change in residence (we’re moving, aren’t we??): 20
  • Change in social activities (drastically curtailed by much less income): 18
  • Change in eating habits (well, only several times daily): 15
  • Minor violation of the law (can’t believe I made this one: speeding ticket): 11

Oh, boy!  That makes 314.  According to the scale,  “Score of 300+: At risk of illness”.  Ah, but I could have told you that already.

Needless to say, this list is grossly incomplete.  Why don’t they have a line for “too much rain to take dogs for walk”? (“It’s true, Mum, we find that very stressful!”). Or how about, “Email program won’t work correctly and entire job at risk from loss of emails”?  Or maybe, “Dear friend helps by getting someone to be interested in financing organic bakery and asks for proposal four days before moving date”?  Maybe, “just started blog about reforming eating habits and have been succumbing to cravings and binges more than any other time in the entire past year”? Or even,”laid-back honey forgets to pick up extra moving boxes from the LCBO only FOUR DAYS before moving and left without any boxes to pack remaining 68% of home contents”???  I could go on.  Somebody, stop me.

 Is it any wonder I’ve been craving chocolate? Meditation, here I come (again).

The last few nights, I’ve been having trouble falling asleep, then waking up in the morning feeling exhausted.  My heart is pounding too fast, my chest feels full and heavy, my stomach aches ever so slightly.  I’d say this was caused by overeating or binging, but I haven’t actually been indulging in those lovely activities in the past couple of days, so that’s not it. 

What it is, I’ve recognized, is the oppressive stress I’m feeling because of this impending move (only 5 days away!), the lack of organization in our home preceding it, work pressures, and having to keep up with daily routines because of two little fur-babies who don’t have the faintest idea that their lives are about to change radically and irrevocably in less than a week. (“What?  Change radically? What are you talking about, Mum? Are you going to change our food?  Are you going to buy us new toys?  Are we finding a new trail to walk in–??? WHAT???”)

 Now, when this sort of thing has occurred in the past, I’d either ignore it (if all else were going well, or I found myself otherwise distracted), or rush to make a doctor’s appointment and check out all vitals (if anxiety were rearing its ugly persona once again).  In this case, however, I’m trying to be more self-aware as part of my overall plan, so I stopped to take a closer look at what it is and how it’s affecting me. 

Years ago, when I suffered regularly from panic attacks, I saw a wonderful therapist who practised cognitive therapy and recommended a program based on the philosophy of Jon Kabat-Zin, called Mindfulness Meditation.  I attended the sessions for eight Saturday mornings (culminating in an entire day of silent meditation–bliss!),  and learned how to use a form of meditation based on progressive relaxation.  Then, during my halcyon year at CSNN, I resurrected the practise as a daily routine before going off to school.  I have to admit that I felt fantastic.

So, this very morning, I awoke at 6:53 AM, mere minutes after the alarm blared beside my ear, and determined that I’d begin to meditate again.  Yes, I had promised myself (again) that I’d walk on the treadmill this morning, but this seemed more pressing.  So, after being greeted by one exuberant puppy pressing her cold, wet nose into my cheek (C. and I sleep on a futon bed, resting on a pedestal frame–which means our faces are perfectly aligned with dog-face level), I dragged myself upright and padded into the TV room.

I had done this before, only a couple of years ago, so there should be no problem, right?  I clearly remembered the routine, the progression from general relaxation to focusing individually on each body part and relaxing it in turn, along with breathing in while focusing on the part (and any sensations, pain, etc. there), then breathing out while letting the part go limp, consciously relaxing the muscle, freeing my mind of any thoughts (and gently returning it to the business at hand should it wander in any way).  I can do this, I thought. It’s like riding a bike.

And so I began.  Bare feet flat on floor.  I sit on a chair with a special back pillow behind me for support (bad back), so I’m actually upright and sitting fairly tall.  Face forward, eyes closed, tip of tongue on roof of mouth, breathe in–deep–breathe out, a heavy sigh, relaxing all of the body.  I’d deliberately left the light out (there’s just barely enough to limn the various pieces of furniture and assorted packing boxes in the room , these grey autumn mornings) so that I could close my eyes and really focus.

I’d gotten as far as focusing on the soles of my feet when I felt it again–the cold wetness, this time on my big toe.  Then used said big toe to push Chaser out of the way, Nylabone still in her mouth.  Back to the soles.  Breathe in, breathe out.  Relax.  Focus.

Not ten seconds later (I was at the ankle by now), she’d returned to chewing her bone, this time using the top of my foot as a brace so she could prop the bone between her paws and get a better chewing angle.  And I thought meditation was supposed to be RELAXING.  At this point, I was more tense than when I’d awoken.  I gave up with a sigh and headed toward the shower.

I think I will need to close the door next time I meditate.

(“But I found it very relaxing, Mum!  You should try chewing a Nylabone once in a while.  Great for the tension in your teeth.”)